Shortly after 4 o’clock this morning the whole of the South and a portion of the North Island was shaken by a violent shock of earthquake, the most severe experienced for more than 20 years. It was felt with more or less force at New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Blenheim, Timaru, Christchurch, Greymouth, Westport, Kaikoura, Dunedin, and Invercargill. Its direction is given variously as from north east to south west and from east to west, while its duration is estimated at fully a minute.
At Christchurch its effects were most alarming. The first shock occurred at three minutes past 1 o’clock, and was followed at intervals by four other shocks extending over half an hour. The whole of the city was aroused. People rushed from their houses into the streets, momentarily expecting the rocking buildings to collapse. The greatest commotion prevailed. Pictures on the walls were dashed to the ground, and there was an immense destruction of glass and crockery ware. The bells of the Cathedral were made to toll by the rocking of the spire, and immediately afterwards about 26ft of the spire came crashing to the ground. A large number of chimneys also fell, and a number of buildings cracked. The cathedral itself does not appear to have suffered much damage, but it has been decided not to hold a service there tomorrow.
A small portion of the stone work of the Durham street Wesleyan Church has been displaced. The Normal School also suffered. Morton’s block of new buildings, opposite the Bank of New Zealand, sustained a considerable rent. The Sunnyside Asylum escaped without damage. The Museum escaped uninjured as far as the building was concerned, but the exhibits were knocked about a good deal. The Young Men’s Christian Association building shows evidence of having been considerably affected, the planks being cracked in several places. Generally, however, the damage is less than was expected. The inhabitants were at first greatly alarmed, but after the shocks ceased they returned to their homes. Just before the first shock came, it is said that great flashes of light were seen in the direction of the Hanmer Plains hot springs.1
Professor Hutton Reports
The earthquake that took place on Saturday, the 1st September, 1888, was felt from Invercargill in the south to New Plymouth and Masterton in the north, a distance of about six hundred miles, but was most severe in the neighbourhood of the Hanmer Plains, which are nearer to the northern limit of the disturbed area than to its southern limit by about fifty miles. The shock commenced soon after 4 a.m., with a rumbling noise and slight shakes for a second or two, followed by the main shock, lasting from forty to sixty seconds, or even more in some places. Judging from my own feelings at Christchurch, I should say that the shock was a backward-and-forward oscillation that began gradually and as gradually died away after about forty-five seconds’ duration, and that it was not accompanied by any sharp jerks. It was followed within the next quarter of an hour by two much smaller shocks, with other slight ones occurred continually until 5 or 6 a.m., these slighter shocks being only felt in the Amuri, At Boatman’s, Reefton and Westport. All Saturday, Sunday, and Monday the ground at Hanmer Plains was quivering ; with smarter shocks, felt on the west coast and at Christchurch, at about 3.55 a.m. and 4.25 p.m. on Saturday, at 11.15 a.m. on Sunday, and at 8.15 a. m. on Monday.2
The Supposed Lights of Hanmer Plains
Sulphurous fumes, which were combustible, says Professor Milne3, were belched out of the earth at the time of the Jamaica earthquake in 1692. The Professor adds that “in addition to the flames, lights appear often to have been observed, the origin of which cannot be easily explained. The earthquake of November 22nd, 1751, at Genoa, is said to have been accompanied by a light like that of a prodigious fire, which seemed to arise out of the ground.” Volger4 has attributed the origin of lights or flames appearing above fissures to the friction which must take place between rocky materials at the time when the fissures are opened. As confirmatory of this, he refers to instances where similar phenomena have been observed at the time of landslips. At the time of these landslips the heat developed by friction as been sufficiently intense to convert water into stream, the tension of which threw mud and earth into the air like the explosion of a mine.5
A Warning to Architects
For the fourth time in twenty years Christchurch has been visited by an earthquake sufficiently severe to cause appreciable damage to property and extreme discomfort to the nerves. Opinions may, and do, differ as to whether the shock of Saturday morning was worse than the famous “double knock” of 1869. It was quite bad enough, at any rate, to set as a warning to architects, and to fill the minds of those who hope that the Christchurch of the future may be numbered among the artistically built cities of the earth with gloomy apprehensions. The earthquake is not friendly to the picturesque in architecture.
Here is a description of a model earthquake-proof house, constructed on scientific principles ;- “A one-storied, strongly-framed timber house, with a light flattish roof, made of sheet iron, the whole resting on a quantity of small cast-iron balls, carried on flat plates bedded in foundations.” Fancy a city composed in the main of such things of beauty as this! It would be a moot point as to whether a certain amount of danger might not be preferable to safety gained a the cost of living in a town composed of family vaults above ground.
In Caracas, the city of earthquakes, towers are things unknown, steeples are as strange as pagodas, and chimneys come to a premature end close to the house roof. The householder who should dare to indulge in light fantastic superstructures would speedily hear from his neighbours on the subject, and we are specially told that to top a chimney or turret with any iron ornament “would expose an architect to the anger of an excited mob.” What the good people of Caracas would think of an iron cross surmounting a spire of porous Oamaru stone, we can only faintly imagine. But then every town is not like Caracas – fortunately. The soil there is almost as unstable as the Government.
The Preliminary Shock
A sharp shock of earthquake was felt in Christchurch about three minutes past ten p.m. on August 30. The direction was from North-west to South-east, and the duration was estimated to be fully half a minute.
The Severe Shock
The violent earthquake shock, which so rudely roused everyone from sleep at a few minutes past 4 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, may possibly not be the severest on record in this part of New Zealand, but it has certainly been the most destructive since the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims‘ landed.
As a usual thing it is somewhat difficult to settle the exact time of an earthquake’s occurrence. On this occasion there can be no doubt about it. The Post Office clock recorded that little item most considerately by stopping short at twelve minutes past four. With regard to the direction, always another matter for dispute, rubbish, fallen objects, &c., point pretty plainly to a North-east – South-west disturbance.
The duration, too, is a matter not easily ascertainable. During an earthquake, many people’s fears cause seconds to prolong themselves into minutes, minutes to seem hours. The disturbance, however, appears to have lasted perhaps a couple of minutes. Persons who retained their presence of mind sufficiently to take mental note of the occurrence, speak of a wave-like motion, increasing in violence till it reached an alarming pitch, and then dying gradually away to stillness. Some observers say that the uproar caused by falling masonry and creaking buildings was succeeded, after the shock had passed, by a brief interval, not more than a second, of deep silence, awful in its intensity, after which arose the hum of many voices, and the outcry of affrighted animals.
Not the Severest Experienced
We have said that the shock of Saturday morning was possibly not the severest that has been experienced here in Christchurch. A comparison of notes with people who remember the very alarming shake which occurred about eight o’clock on the morning of June 5, 1869, leads us to the conclusion. One of the most vivid memories remaining in the minds of those who remember that phenomenon is the hideous fear that was exhibited by animals. The unearthly noise caused by the barking of dogs, the lowing of cattle, and expressions of fear on the part of other dumb creatures, can never be forgotten by one who heard it. Nor is it easy to forget the waving of the trees, the uncanny wave-like motion of the hedges, or the twisted and fractured chimneys that were to be seen in many quarters of the town. Still, the characteristic feature of the Cathedral City had not then been reared, and the damage done on this occasion, therefore, at once assumes a magnitude beyond that of former days.
The principal shock was followed on Saturday by over half-a-dozen others, all of them so slight that many people did not feel them. The first of these occurred about half-past 4 a.m., the second five minutes later, the third about a quarter to five, and the fourth about five o’clock. At five minutes to eleven a fifth shock occurred, and stopped several clocks, those at the City Council Office and Police Station among them. The sixth shock took place about half-past eleven. Another occurred shortly before twenty-five minutes past four.
On Sept. 2, there was a slight shock about five in the morning, and another at a quarter past eleven. Both were so slight that they were not noticed by several people, though others were somewhat alarmed. Several persons who were in Church went out, apparently fearing a panic if the shock continued.
In the first place, what everyone feared would happen some day has actually happened, the spire of the Cathedral has come to grief. Its tapering, graceful outline, a landmark for every dweller on the plains within thirty miles, and a beacon for the mariner crossing Pegasus Bay, no longer cuts the sky. Twenty-six feet of the upper spire have given way, and the melancholy appearance of the wreck strikes every eye. Hanging by the iron bands built into the stonework, the cross and parts of the finial remained aloft till late in the afternoon, the cynosure of all eyes in the crowd which constantly gathered and melted away in the square below.
In Christchurch the emphasis of the whole thing is given by the fall of the top of the Cathedral spire, which very fortunately was unattended with loss of life. If it had happened on a Saturday evening, when the roadway is crowded with pedestrians and wheeled traffic, there would have been a different tale. But the damage to the spire must not mislead us into an exaggeration of the magnitude of the earthquake disturbance. The spire came down not because the shock was too great for a spire, but because the spire had an iron rod built into it to hold the cross on top. The rod spoilt the unity of the vibration by its superior rigidity. A jar was set up in consequence, and away went the stonework. Besides this the rod acted as a lever against the stonework, with all the weight of the ponderous oscillating cross.
Fortunately, the rest of the building has suffered no serious damage. Even the lower part of the spire, as has since been ascertained, is perfectly sound. The blocks of stone fell mostly towards Cathedral square, and spared the building, though bright white spots on the grey masonry of the tower and ornaments show plainly where they stuck in their descent, in some cases breaking off large splinters in their course. One hole has been made in the high roof of the nave, but it is not large; the more noticeable damage occurring in the aisle roof, which is broken through in several places. The falling debris, it is curious to note, struck clear of the memorial font to Captain Stanley, coming to the ground on either side of it, and spoiling nothing but a single arm of one of the tall gas-standards.
The Steeplekeeper – First on the Scene
Mr Anderson, the steeplekeeper, went to the cathedral with the utmost promptness, and was inside it – about six minutes after the shock.
“I was awakened by the shock and the ringing of the bells” he said. “Without stopping to fully dress I ran to the Cathedral and arrived there about five or six minutes after the first shock.”
He lighted the gas and found that there was only one place of leakage – from one of the standards near the font. One of the branches of this had been broken off by a large splinter of wood, he believed, detached from a roof beam by the concussion of a blow on the roof by some of the falling masonry. Having stopped the leak, he proceeded to make an examination of the building. He has had some experience of South America, par excellence the land of earthquakes, and knew what to look for. That was dust at the bottom of the walls inside. It seems that when a wall is injured by an earthquake, the shock dislodges certain particles of mortar, &c., which form tiny heaps and ridges on the ground. Mr Anderson’s examination was satisfactory. Dust there was none. The walls were uninjured. Together with Mr A. Merton, and another gentleman, Mr Watkins, who joined him, he pursued his investigations. He ascended the spire, to find that nothing was injured below the break. While he was in the tower a second shock, much slighter than the first, came. Mr Anderson felt it plainly, and described the sensation as similar to that experienced when one is in a cab jolting over a loose stone. He went up to the break, and removed some loose stones, for fear they might fall and injure either the building or the people who were by this time clustering beneath. The cross, which was hanging against the side of the steeple by the iron braces, which had not been detached, he secured as well as he could with a rope, so as to prevent it from falling to the ground. The four largest bells of the peal, which had been “rung up.” were “rung down” by the earthquake and it was these which caused the clamorous peal which added so much to the startling effect of the shock. The smaller bells, which had been also “rung up,” had not been moved, and none of the bells had been in any way injured.
“I had the greatest difficulty, early though it was, in getting the people who had collected on the footpath to go away out of any possible falling stones. The police were also early on the spot, but despite all we could do they took away stones, and could not be got away out of what might have been a dangerous position.” said Anderson in an interview to the Weekly Press Sept 7, 1888 page 1229.
During the morning the debris was cleared away from around the base of the tower, and arrangements were made for lowering the cross from its insecure position. This was successfully accomplished, under the direction of Mr Anderson, in the afternoon. The cross was lowered down to the gallery on the tower, in order that it might be taken to pieces and brought down to terra firma.
It may be interesting to know that the sound of the falling stones from the cathedral spire was heard at long distances from the spot. At Richmond it was noticed by several who predicted the truth, though unable to verify it at the time, that the cathedral spire had been damaged. The morning was exceedingly calm, and at the lower end of Sydenham the sound was also heard.
From daylight a considerable number of persons gathered in Cathedral square, and at all times of the day there were to be seen knots of loiterers about the square, gazing up at the ruined spire. Several views of the spire were taken by enterprising photographers.
History of the Spire
That structure (the spire) was crowned with finial stone and cross on May 19, 1881, and was formally reported as a completed work later on. It was a gift of the sons and daughters of he late Mr Robert Heaton Rhodes (R. H. Rhodes presented the tower, and the family of George Rhodes the spire), whose personal bequest was the tower itself. In the original plans for the erection of the Cathedral, which were drawn by Sir Gilbert Scott, drawings were made for a stone tower with a wooden spire. This idea, however, was afterwards abandoned, and a stone spire was designed by Mr B. W. Mountfort, and duly erected from his drawings.
The stone measures 5ft 3in high when finished, and was cut from a single block measuring 5ft 5in long, and 2ft 6in square, or close upon 34 cubic feet. It is of the hard, fine-grained limestone found at Castle Hill, … and was selected, quarried, and brought to Christchurch for this special purpose.
The total height of the spire and tower was 202ft. The break is about 20ft from the summit, not including the height of the cross, and the spire is about 6ft in diameter at the point of fracture. Mr Mountford could not say how much it would cost to restore the spire, but , so far, no consideration had been given to the question whether it would be desirable to restore it to its original design. Speaking from memory, he said that the spire cost about £2000. (The tower cost £5150.)
Professor Hutton considers that the stone used for the steeple is totally unfit for the purpose, being too porous to support the weight of the iron cross. When the vibration began, the weight of the iron cross cracked the stone. In any case the stone could not have stood many years within an earthquake region such as Christchurch is, as, in addition to the continued vibration to which it is liable, the porous nature of the stone is calculated to gradually cause it to fracture with its own weight. He alluded to the fact that in Oamaru some years ago chimneys built of the local stone had been shaken down, while the brick ones stood in nearly every case.
An Interview with Professor Hutton
With the desire of obtaining as full information as possible respecting the earthquake on Saturday, a representative of this paper waited on Professor Hutton, at Canterbury College, and obtained the following valuable information :-
Want of Date.
“There has been no systematic investigation of any kind, made by the Government, of earthquakes in this Colony, and no facts have been placed on record except the dates of their occurrence. If there are instruments in Wellington, there has been no notice taken of them nor is there any published record of the results obtained by them. To investigate earthquakes it is necessary to have instruments in not less than three different places, then some ideal of the position of the centre of disturbance could be made out; it would not be left to guesswork,; and we should then be able to gain the necessary information s to the size of the earthquake wave as well its direction.
A Practical View
The practical advantage of this information is that builders and architects can, by knowing the direction the earthquake takes , adopt precautionary measures in adapting their buildings so as to turn the strong side in that direction. Beautiful instruments are now being made in the Cambridge University which record all necessary data connected with an earthquake – time observations, and earth movements of all descriptions. These work automatically. In the interest of science and the Colonists generally, these should be supplied, and Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch are suitable places to procure the data, as there are plenty of people at each of these centres who could be found willing to attend to them.
Professor Hutton writes as follows:-
To the Editor
Sir, Telegrams show that the earthquake of Saturday morning did not originate in Banks Peninsula, as I at first thought probable, but somewhere to the West, probably in Inangahua County. I infer this from the times at which the earthquake occurred at different places – first at Greymouth and Westport, then at Timaru, Christchurch, Wellington and Nelson, and last at Invercargill, Dunedin and New Plymouth.
The shock was felt over a radius of three hundred miles from the centre of disturbance, and it is remarkable that a shock so widely extended should have done so little damage. This was probably due to the centre of disturbance lying deep down in the earth, so that the earth-wave at the surface was more vertical than usual.
Another remarkable circumstance is the extraordinary rapidity with which the earthquake spread over the surface of the earth, travelling at a rate of about a mile in a second, which is from four to five times faster than the observed velocity of transit of earth waves through the ground. This again can only be accounted for by supposing that the centre of disturbance was very deeply seated. But if we take the actual velocity of transit of the wave through the earth to have been 1200ft per second, which is the average of recorded observations, calculation shows that in order to get an apparent surface velocity of fourteen or fifteen miles per second, for from 100 to 300 miles, the centre of disturbance would have to be several hundreds of miles below the surface, which is quite incredible.
Of course time observations alone, even if made with the greatest accuracy, are only capable of giving the roughest approximation to the position of the centre of disturbance; but it is evident there is something wrong, either in recorded observations, or else in our ideas of the interior of the earth, and it is very desirable that accurate instrumental observations of our earthquake phenomena should be recorded in at least five or six places in New Zealand.
The seismograph in the Wellington Museum seems to be the only one in the Colony, and this appears to register the horizontal direction of the wave only, which is not sufficient to determine the locus of an earthquake. Excellent automatic, self-registering seismographs, capable of recording all necessary earthquake phenomena, can be obtained in England for about £60 each, and any intelligent person could be taught how to use them. But I have written so often in vain about the importance of studying our earthquakes, that I despair of the Government taking any effectual steps in the matter.
I am,, &c.,
F. W. Hutton
Christchurch, Sept. 2.
A gentleman not long from England, being awakened by the shock, aroused his brother, telling him that there was a severe shock of earthquake. “Oh,” replied the brother calmly, “You must be mistaken. It is only one of the very high winds we have in Christchurch occasionally.”
The “Lyttelton Times” Office
The machinists and stereotypers in the Lyttelton Times Office had a most uncomfortable experience. The Victory web printing machining was going at its usual rate of speed when the first shock occurred, but worked so hard on its bearings with the rocking that work had to cease for a time. Meanwhile the steam indication in the engine gauge went down from 60lb to 40lb, and the huge webs of paper from which the Times is printed went rolling about in a most unpleasant way. In the top story of the building several of the stereotypers were at work, and they state that the rocking and creaking of the building was quite as bad as a ship in a calm in the tropics.
One of the most interesting accounts of personal experience of the earthquake is that given by Mr Smith, a member of the publishing staff at this journal, who was on his way to work at the office when the shock occurred. He was, he says, walking passed the house in Latimer square formerly occupied by the last Mr W. J. W. Hamilton6, when he heard, apparently behind him, a rumbling like that produced by a heavy vehicle. The noise appeared to travel onwards towards the town, and he looked around for the cause. Seeing no vehicle, he became somewhat alarmed, and set off at a smart pace towards town. As he neared Cathedral square, he heard a sound like the rushing of wind among trees, noticed the ground begin to quiver under his feet, and was startled by the crash of a falling chimney. He looked up at the Cathedral spire, and saw that it was shaking violently. It quivered for a few seconds, then the top seemed to melt away, and came down with a roar of the ground below. Almost simultaneously, so it seemed to Mr Smith, a wild, discordant clangour of bells burst from the tower.
Mr Ross, a scavenger
At the time of the shock a man named Ross (described as a ‘scavenger’ by the United Press Association), employed by Mr Brightling7, was walking along the middle of the road through Cathedral square in front of the Cathedral. He states that the spire began to shake almost with the commencement of the earthquake, and when the shock reached its climax, the upper part of the structure seemed to collapse, and came crashing to the ground. One of the pieces of stone fell very near to Ross. Most of the stone struck the footpath, South-west of the tower, between the fence and the drinking fountain, about eight feet from the fence, and about on the spot where the small piece of stone which was detached from the spire by the earthquake a few years ago fell. The mass of stone which came down on Saturday seems to have exploded like a bombshell, for fragments, some half as large as a man’s body were strewn all over the footpath, and even on the road. The asphalt was smashed to pieces, for an irregularly shaped patch of nearly a yard in extent. A considerable portion of the debris fell into the Cathedral yard on the northern side of the tower.
A young man, whose name could not be ascertained, was also an eye-witness of the disaster to the steeple. He was on the footpath near the Godley Statue, and bolted, under the impression that the entire tower was coming down. Finding it did not fall, he returned, and was soon joined by others, anxious, like himself, to see the extent of the damage. In a few minutes a crowd of considerable size was collected around the building. Many persons picked up the smaller pieces of the stone which were scattered about, to preserve as mementos of the event. All devoted themselves to examining the tower as well as they could in the dim light, and many expressed the opinion that it was considerably out of the perpendicular. When, however, the morning began to dawn, it was seen that the graceful shaft which has long been the architectural pride of Christchurch was, although truncated, erect.
Mr Young’s Narrow Escape
A rather narrow escape happened at the cottage of Mr John Young, at Moa place, off Madras street north. His cottage adjoins a parapet wall attached to the house next door. At the time this wall was built Mr Young protested against it on the ground that was not safe. However, the work was allowed by the Works Committee of the City Council. About 2ft of brickwork were knocked off the top of the wall last night by the earthquake, and stove in the roof of and completely wrecked a little room in Mr Young’s cottage. Some of the occupants of the house were sleeping just on the other side of the wall of the injured room at the time, so that if the debris had fallen but two feet, or perhaps even one foot further, a serious accident, it not loss of life, would most likely have ensured.
Clarkson and Sons, Drapery Warehouse
In the fancy department of the drapery warehouse of Messrs Clarkson and Sons, the shock played strange vagaries. Hats which were stacked in neat orderly heaps were found in the centre of the floor in miscellaneous heaps. The various lay figures, on which were displayed the latest triumphs of dressmaking, were in a recumbent position. The most remarkable portion of the upset of the department was in the ribbons. Some thousands of rolls of ribbons were dislodged from the shelves and sent rolling in inextricable confusion all over the floor.
Mr Buckley of Sumner
Mr Buckley, who lives in one of the small bays off the Sumner road, reports that he was awakened by the noise of a large boulder coming down the hill. It passed over the road leading to Sumner, and continued its career to the sea. Of course the stone was not seen, but from the noise it made, and also from the marks left on the road where it crossed it must have been of very large dimensions. Luckily there were no houses in its course, or the result would most certainly have been serious. The noise it made tearing down the hill was heard on the Lyttelton side of Sumner road, a distance of many hundreds of yards from where it descended.
“Becky Sharp”, The Ladies Page
“Of course the great subjects of conversation just now are earthquakes and spires. I am quite tired of the invariable question whenever anyone fresh comes to see me : “Did you feel the earthquake?” I don’t suppose there is a person in the whole town who didn’t feel the earthquake, and, what is more, wishes he had not. I shall not describe my feelings, because they were not creditable to me at all, and the only excuse I have is that, as I am almost utterly helpless, the experience was a very terrible one to me. I believe some people – lucky things – rushed out of doors in the most peculiar costumes. One lady took great care to put on her hat, though with other garments she was scantily provided, while quite a number of provident persons appeared attired in the Native dress of a blanket. Dinah says that those people who rushed off to the Cathedral to look at the spire noticed that the town was mildly illuminated. In every house lights were moving to and fro, and one man was seen walking along the footpath with a lighted candle. I wonder how most people past the next night. I quite expected another earthquake myself, and Dinah had the greatest difficulty in getting me to bed at all… They say the poor spire looks most melancholy, and everybody seems quite sad about it. I am glad I have not seen it. I would not have been Mr Anderson for untold gold. Fancy rushing up the tower while it was still rocking from the shock which had thrown down twenty feet of masonry from the top. I prefer to leave those kind of actions to other people. Lying in bed and trembling is about as much as I can manage.”
Sources: This article comes from extracts taken from The Canterbury Times and The Weekly Press, September 7, 1888, unless attributed elsewhere.
Professor Frederick Wollaston Hutton was a professor of Natural Science and Biology. After serving in the military as a Captain, he retired in 1865 and emigrated to New Zealand the following year. In 1877, Hutton was appointed professor of natural science at the University of Otago, transferring three years later to Canterbury College where he became professor of biology and lecturer in geology. He later became the curator of the Canterbury Museum (1893-1905).
View Lost Christchurch in a larger map
- Argus, Melbourne. Monday 3 September, 1888. ▲
- Extract from ART. XXXII – The Earthquake in the Amuri. By Professor Hutton. Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 6th September, 1888. ▲
- Professor John Milne, British geologist and mining engineer who worked on a horizontal seismograph. His nickname was ‘Earthquake Milne‘. ▲
- Georg Heinrich Otto Volger, January 30, 1822 – October 18, 1897, was a German geologist ▲
- The Press, Sept 8. 1888 ▲
- William John Warburton Hamilton, Collector of Customs, Magistrate and shareholder in the Lyttelton Times, died on 6 December 1883, aged 58 ▲
- John Brightling, a contractor in Cathedral square ▲